“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive”
Aurora, by Seraphina Madsen, is a highly disturbing bildungsroman. The narrator is not revealed until the end but it is clear throughout that they are very much taken with the eponymous protagonist whose early life they are recounting in detail. From the start there are hints of other-worldly beings. What unfolds is the danger of playing with powers beyond human understanding.
Aurora was born into a family derided by many as trailer trash. Her parents were immersed in the Arizona drug scene, dead before their child could know anything of them. She was raised by her hyper-religious grandmother, a hard-working woman determined that Aurora should enjoy the sort of luxury and privileges featured in a glossy magazine. From a young age the child was also willing to work hard to achieve this ambition.
What became clear to them was that someone of Aurora’s background would never be accepted by the elite offspring whose schools she succeeded in attending. She learned that she would have to hide her origins and make herself appear amenable and interesting. To become what her grandmother wanted she would also have to move away from Arizona where her background was more likely to be uncovered. Thanks to a scholarship, she secures a place at an elite prep school in New England. Here she shares a dorm room with Sylvia, who takes Aurora under her wing. The girls share many interests, not least a desire to dabble in occult practices and thereby commune with and derive power from the pagan entities of myth and legend. In their second year at the academy they join forces with a group of girls from California, whose parents provide money and luxury accommodation but little attention. Aurora must now work harder at her constructed persona if she is to continue to fit in.
“In your affairs, create suspense. Admiration at their novelty means respect for your success. It’s neither useful nor pleasurable to show all your cards. Not immediately revealing everything fuels anticipation, especially when a person’s elevated position means expectations are greater. It bespeaks mystery in everything and, with this very secrecy, arouses awe.”
The novel starts at a cracking pace. Aurora’s birth story, early years, experiences at her grandmother’s church and at her first school construct a background for what is to come. Once she starts at the academy this pace slows. There are many references to the books Aurora and Sylvia so avidly read – a deep dive into philosophy, religious history, surrealism and art that does go on a bit. Their initial dabbling in practical occult rituals, dangerous though they are, provide little deterrence to seeking the forces they wish to unleash. The California girls are equally intent on playing their dark, risk filled games. Their entitled upbringing and sense of self importance makes them impatient to experience whatever witchcraft and sorcery may offer before developing the skills they may need to stay in control of situations they blindly orchestrate.
“I don’t know, I mean having sex in a circle of witches yelling ecstatically as rooster blood and sperm is sprayed all over me, and then writing a symbol on parchment with the blood and sex fluids to create an entity that will give me supernatural powers sounds kind of hot.”
The girls imbibe copious quantities of alcohol and chain smoke cigarettes as they read each other excerpts from books and discuss potential occult experiments. Bear in mind that, at this time, they are still in their early to mid teens. The lack of parental attendance is explained, as is their ability to pay for anything they want and travel around the world at will. Whatever mess they end up making, ‘the help’ will ensure it is cleaned up and kept secret from anyone who may care what they are risking.
Aurora becomes something of a pet, tolerated but not regarded as an equal. While recognising this, she is still eager to remain a part of the group. The girls show little appreciation of the dangers inherent in dabbling with occult and pagan deities, and also the real world risks from over privileged males whose parents’ lawyers can make any ‘problem’ go away. They are described as beautiful, at times ethereal. Along with the reputations their practices earn them amongst peers this draws attention.
“the most coveted girls on campus, their fans imagining them while they masturbated. (This is one of the unfortunate prices of fame one does not often consider.)”
The denouement, despite everything that has gone on before, retains a depressingly shocking element. The girls may have been foolish but were granted unquestioned freedom and finances when too young to have wisdom. If this is how the children of the wealthy behave it is no wonder so many end up off the rails. Nevertheless, it is hard not to have some sympathy for Aurora – maybe not in how she came to regard her grandmother.
The writing style and narrative voice immerse the reader in the girls’ world. There is tension in the events recounted, although an interest in supernatural practices may help retain interest in the many books referenced. A highly unusual tale that tests the bounds of dark magic possibilities beyond narcotic effects. What is, sadly, a more grounded danger is the predicament Aurora ended up in, at least before the final pages stretch belief again.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dodo Ink.
That started off attracting me Jackie as I like Bildungsroman books but you were right to point to highly disturbing themes and as the review continued I began to think it was probably not for me. Sounds very immersive though and you give a good flavour of a book that one might in the end choose not to read.